dark forest - After Dark Photo (24759747) - Fanpop

Photo: fanpop.com

Personally, I like the idea of hygge, the Danish word that doesn’t quite translate into English but roughly means “cosy, with candles, and beers, and warm fires and stuff, for when it’s cold outside, which it is in Denmark a lot”.

This Christmas in the UK, hygge has become the latest thing the marketing men say we should all be into, and books on the subject are selling like hot brunkage.

But I’m rather pleased to discover that there is an anti-hygge, an opposite of hygge, called uhygge (and please don’t ask me how to pronounce it, I’ve only just mastered hygge). Apparently it’s to do with that disturbing feeling you get in, say, a wood at night – that something is watching you, that you’re trespassing somehow, that you ought to leave, quick, and get home for some reassuring hygge.

Anyway, this article from the Guardian has more on the subject of uhygge. Don’t have nightmares…


Twelfth Night, Odin & the King of the Bean

The Bean King (The King Drinks) - Jacob Jordaens

The Bean King (The King Drinks), by Jacob Jordaens (1638)

Today, the 5th January, marks Twelfth Night, a date that, if they think about it at all, most people nowadays associate with two things – the Shakespeare play of the same name, and taking down the Christmas decorations.

But in pre-industrial Britain, the celebrations of Christmas once lasted the full Twelve Days, although there was some disagreement as to whether Christmas Day itself was counted as one of these – if it wasn’t, then the 6th January, Epiphany, became the Twelfth Day, though the 5th January was still called Twelfth Night, confusingly. The introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Britain, in 1752, made matters more complicated still, as many people persisted in marking the old dates rather than the new ones. It is for this reason that many wassailing traditions in England are still held on January 17th – Old Twelfth Night.

What’s certain is that Christmastide was once regarded, across Medieval and Early Modern Europe, as a dangerous time, when Odin’s Wild Hunt rode through the sky, werewolves stalked the woods, and the dead came back to haunt the living. For all that, though, it was still no doubt a welcome break from work before the agricultural year began again on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Epiphany). People would elect an Epiphany King, or “King of the Bean” (in France the equivalent figure was called l’Abbé de la Malgouverné – the Abbot of Unreason), a “Mock King” tradition that goes back to the Roman Saturnalia, a festival held from the 17th to the 24th December, when a slave would be chosen to be King, and the usual order overturned, with men dressing as women, folk wearing animal masks, and feasting and general licentiousness prevailing.

The Mock King’s medieval descendant, the King of the Bean, was chosen by placing a bean and a pea in a cake called the Twelfth Cake. Whoever found the bean in their slice became King, and they were crowned and robed for the duration of the feast, and the woman who found the pea became the Twelfth Day Queen (if a woman found the bean, she had the right to name the King; if a man found the pea, he chose the Queen).

In France, the Twelfth Cake was called the gateau des Rois, and, when it had been cut into slices, a small child hidden under the table was asked whom each should go to. He would randomly nominate people from the assembled company until all pieces of the cake had been accounted for, and the finder of the bean became the Epiphany King.

In England, the King of the Bean ceremony has, to the best of my knowledge, long since disappeared, though Twelfth Cakes continued to be made and sold well into the Nineteenth Century, before the decline of Twelfthtide celebrations, and the increasing popularity of the Christmas cake, finally did for them.

It’s a shame, though – personally, I don’t think one should need much excuse for cake, so I’m all for reviving this particular tradition…


The legend of Mother Leakey

Every town, I think, should have its own ghost. The town of Minehead in Somerset has at least one – her name is Mother Leakey, and this is her story. She died in 1634, and soon afterwards was seen whistling up storms that destroyed her son’s shipping business, strangling her grandson in the cradle for good measure. Then she appeared to the local doctor while he was out walking – she sat on a stile and refused to move, and when he pushed past her, she gave him a hefty kick up the backside. Such was her infamy that, long after her death, Sir Walter Scott wrote about her, and the cartoonist George Cruickshank drew her.

In 1637, a Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate the appearances, chaired by the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It eventually concluded that there was no substance in the story, and it was dismissed. Even so, tales of Mother Leakey have persisted, and within living memory the old woman was still blamed if there was bad weather in Minehead. Quite what might have made her so vengeful is unclear, however…!

Kingley Vale, yew trees and Viking ghosts

Photo: westsussex.info

When we were students in Sussex in the early Nineties, my friends and I would sometimes drive up to Kingley Vale, just outside Chichester, on the South Downs, to work off our indolence with a bracing walk, and possibly an extra strong cigarette or two. On one memorable occasion we were surprised by members of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, who drove up to our van in the car park one Saturday evening, and shone their torches in our faces, on the spurious grounds that the van was a diesel and someone had been stealing similar ones in the area. Personally I think they were just bored of rounding up drunks in Chichester that night. But I digress.

Kingley Vale is a National Nature Reserve and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), and is looked after by Natural England. As well as being a diverse habitat for flora and fauna, it contains 14 scheduled ancient monuments, including an Iron Age earthwork (Goosehill Camp), the remains of a Roman temple, and, at the top of the Vale, on Bow Hill, four Bronze Age barrows. These are colloquially known as the Devil’s Humps, or otherwise the Kings’ Graves, and are said to be the burial site of Viking lords defeated by local men in the Ninth Century. Further down the hill is a large area of yew woodland, with some trees thought to be over five hundred years old, and the ghosts of the dead Vikings are supposed to haunt them. Having been there myself after dark, I can testify that this is indeed a spooky and atmospheric place at night, the trunks and branches of the old yew trees twisted into strange and wild shapes by the wind, and the passing of the years.

Photo: Jessica Ann

The Ghosts of Pluckley

Pluckley is a village of about a thousand souls, near Ashford in Kent.

It’s mentioned in the Domesday Book, and the Dering Manuscript was discovered here – the earliest manuscript of a Shakespeare play still in existence, it is of Henry IV (Parts I & II) and is thought to date from c. 1613. More recently the village has been used as the location for the TV adaptation of The Darling Buds of May.

My family and I holidayed here back in the early Eighties, and stayed on a turkey farm. Every evening for supper we had turkey in some shape or form, till it became a bit like that pastiche of The Twelve Days of Christmas:

On the eighth day of Christmas the dog ran off for shelter / I served up turkey pancakes and a glass of Alka Seltzer.

There was another family staying there who were very Welsh and very proud of it – nothing wrong with that, except they demanded to know why, if we were from Somerset, we didn’t speak like the Wurzels…?

Anyway, what really spooked me, as a young kid still in short trousers, was that Pluckley was known (and still is) as the Most Haunted Village in England.

My parents even obtained a map, indicating the various ghosts (there are around twelve in all) and where in the village they were to be found.

None were located on the farm, but still I remember sleeping very badly that week (perhaps it was all that turkey), and was glad to get home again.

Many of the ghosts are associated with the Dering family (from whom the Dering Manuscript takes its name), who were local landowners for centuries. There is a Red Lady, a White Lady, several phantom dogs, a highwayman, a soldier, a miller, a tramp, a farmer who did away with himself, and – my own particular favourite – a gypsy woman whose pipe set fire to the haystack on which she was sleeping.

If you’re in the area, go and investigate – you’re braver than me! But just remember, if you hear any strange wailings or noises in the vicinity, it could just be someone had a turkey curry the night before…


I love tales of buried treasure.

I think they appeal to the love of mystery – and possibly also greed – in all of us.

One such concerns the village of Broomfield in Somerset (pictured above – see also Why Witches? Part Three), where an underground castle is said to contain riches, and the door to it can only be located by the light of the full moon.

All attempts to dig it up have been thwarted, however, by the spirits who guard it, scaring off treasure hunters with their ghostly cries.

A local doctor once apparently located the door, but when he tried to open it, its guardians nearly carried off his servant, and he had to place a copy of the Bible on the man’s head before pulling him to safety.

The door closed, and disappeared, thereafter moving its position so it could not be found again…

Black Dogs & the Yeth Hounds

The village of Selworthy in Somerset, pictured above, is the kind of place usually described as “chocolate box”, and with its thatched cottages and whitewashed medieval church, it certainly looks the part.

But it was here, in the Nineteenth Century, that a traveller saw a ghostly black dog on Budleigh Hill, and was told later by the local sexton that a while before they had been carrying a coffin that way, and a handle worked itself loose; banging it in again with a stone, the nail pierced the corpse’s skull, and the spirit escaped to roam in the form of a dog, with “great fiery eyes as big as saucers”…

Tales of Black Dogs are common throughout England, and are often seen as harbingers of death or ill-fortune, or otherwise as the Devil in disguise.

One of the most celebrated sightings was in 1577, in the villages of Blythburgh and Bungay in Suffolk, when a terrible storm broke one Sunday morning, and a Black Dog or “Shuck” (derived from the Old English for “devil” or “fiend”, and also from a local dialect word meaning “shaggy” – a reference to the appearance of its coat) broke into the local churches, killing and maiming several people, and leaving the marks of its claws in the doors and stonework.

There have been several different accounts of this incident over the years (always a sign, according to Jacqueline Simpson, that a story has become folklore), and in Bungay especially the creature is now part of the village’s identity (its coat of arms features a picture of the Dog standing on forked lightning). One of the more recent versions is the song Black Shuck by rock band The Darkness…

Black Dogs are solitary, unlike those of the Wild Hunt – known as Yeth Hounds in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset.

They ride as part of the Hunt, with ghostly horsemen, and like Black Dogs they are an ill omen, charging across the sky. Those who hunt on a Sunday, or are cruel and quick-tempered, may end up riding with them…

This was said to be the fate of a butcher’s boy from Rodhuish in Somerset.

A local bully, he tried to scare a young ploughboy who was at the blacksmith’s to mend the coulter on his plough.

He told him that the Devil would appear to him as he walked home over Croydon Hill, but this failed to frighten the lad, who set off regardless, carrying his mended coulter.

A while later he came running back, crying, “I’ve a-killed the Devil!”

The Devil, apparently, had appeared to him on Croydon Hill, and he thought he had struck him dead with his coulter. But it turned out that the butcher’s boy had dressed himself in the carcass of a dead bullock, and had leapt out at the ploughboy as he made his way home. And when the blacksmith and other men from the village went to see what had happened, they found only the bullock’s remains, its skull smashed, and no sign of the butcher’s boy.

Ever since it has been said that the Devil claimed him, and he rides over Croydon Hill with the Wild Hunt on stormy nights. A nice warning about what can happen to bullies!